"Anna Edes" is a gem - its language is simple and precise, giving its facets sharp edges; it is not a "bright and sparkling" gem but one whose interior is dark and cloudy, since it deals with the murky minds of antagonists in a very concentrated form of class conflict, the struggle between masters and their servants. With the exception of one character (the old and sympathetic workhorse, Doctor Moviszter, who in a sense has created an inner life that puts him "beyond class") neither side in this battle comes off well, and yet neither side has its desires and reasons wholly disowned or tarnished by the author, who sees that it is man, regardless of which philosophy he chooses to be his vehicle, who is both tarnished and worthy of respect at the same time.
It is a story that will remind American readers of the grim fate of working class women portrayed in Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and "An American Tragedy", but its compass in time and space is smaller and tighter. The story commences on the day when Bela Kun's Soviet-style government ("The Republic of Councils") collapses; preceding the onset of the story is a one-page "urban legend" concerning Kun, which gives the reader an emblematic taste of the hysterical flavor of those days. On the following day a marauding Romanian army occupies and garrisons Budapest, to the astonishment of all parties involved, including the Romanians.
These events form the ominous background of the story of one couple, Kornel and Angela Vizy, and their servants. The old one, Katica, is dismissed, tainted by an indifference to her masters which flourished during the Kun regime, which the Vizys feel licensed her to misbehave. Vizy himself is no hero in this respect, hanging onto credentials certifying him as a "working member of the middle class" until the last minute. For Mrs. Vizy the desperate problems of post-World-War-I Hungary are reduced to very cozy dimensions - where and how shall she find an appropriate servant (i.e., humble, hard-working, and respectful)? The supporting characters of this household drama are the other tenants of the building owned by the Vizys: Druma, an opportunistic attorney with an eye on the future, the Movisters (the doctor's wife is a self-involved patron of the arts and flamboyant man-chaser), and the former communist and now eagerly nationalistic caretaker of the building, Fricsor, and his wife. Etel and Steffi, two other household servants in the building, and the Vizy's transient nephew Jancsi complete the cast.
Anna Edes, a country girl from a small town on Lake Balaton, is the answer to the Vizy's prayers, a literal service machine who seems to have no flaws (and an opaque inner identity - although she has her own standards, she is incapable of articulating them) that might disturb their busy attempt to reconstruct a pre-war gentry style of life. In the course of half a year she organizes the apartment into a shining model of bourgeois propriety. There is an interlude where she is ravished and rapidly abandoned by Jansci; he is an empty-headed fop uncertain of his own wants and needs and he plunges ahead recklessly into one melodrama after another, each contrived to convince himself and others that he is a man of the world (or a talented actor at the center of everyone else's stage). What is going on in Anna's head as these events unfold and she virtually becomes a pincushion of the Vizy's ambitions? That is unknown.
Events move toward a shocking end. Vizy becomes a government under-secretary (although not stated, his bureaucratic job appears to be within the Ministry of the Interior or its equivalent). The big party celebrating his appointment and showing off the restored apartment culminates in a double murder after the guests have gone home. Anna is guilty but appears to be as mystified by her butchery as the police, prosecutor and her defense attorney are; a satisfactory and legally sanctioned "motive" is never established. Only Dr. Movister offers a sane opinion of what has happened and in what light the crime, its perpetrator and its victims should be viewed (and in this, he is the author's fictional alter ego).
This is an extremely well-wrought novel, compact and classical in its language. The talented translator, George Szirtes, provides the English-language reader with a brief introduction in which he describes Kosztolanyi as the most elegant among a generation of elegant Hungarian writers (with elegance referring to his handling of the language, not his selection of themes). There is a little paradox here - Kosztolanyi was a self-declared aesthete (a position condemned in the post-World-War-II era as "bourgeois formalism"), yet he and his fellow writers had to work hard at daily journalism and other functional writing chores in order to keep body and soul together sufficiently to write fiction of a high order. But from the pen of this aesthete, who understood the hierarchies, the bitter internal divisions, and the persistent feudal legacy of Hungary all too well, came this novel, aptly characterized by one of his admirers, the talented S. Marai, as "the only Hungarian social novel that registered class warfare as it should be, without 'social realism', in all its disastrous human reality."
And what about the ending, a postscript note on the story of Anna? In the final two pages Kosztolanyi creates a surprisingly (even disorienting) "post-modernist" commentary on the preceding tale and its author, himself. His mouthpieces here are the opinionated Druma and his companions, who spy briefly upon "the writer Kosztolanyi" in his small glassed-in verandah. They debate just what kind of man he is, and most importantly in the current context (1926), what are his "real" political opinions, unable to understand that he is a man capable of entertaining more than one thought at a time, as they switch between contradictory opinions with absolute self-certainty about the correctness of their judgments. Their final remarks are drowned out by the equally informative barking of a dog. This finishing touch is, I should say, marvelous.